Adventures in Science


Lily the astrofrog says, “I love water bears. They are the first known animal to survive the vacuum of space in low Earth orbit.”

That great video is by Hank Green and SciShow. Check out their whole YouTube channel. It rocks!

Tardigrades, also known as waterbears or moss piglets and even bug bears, are fascinating little creatures. If you have ever looked at soil under a microscope you might have seen some of these little guys. Under ideal lighting they almost look cute–like micro manatees with eight legs.

Shown: ideal lighting conditions


Under a regular microscope they look like this:

A well-fed water bear.


Tardigrades have evolved to be able to survive in extreme conditions including vacuum, high radiation, and temperatures from near absolute zero up to 151 degrees centigrade. They can also survive almost decade without water. They are truly amazing little creatures.

This is an excellent video introduction to tardigrades that explains what makes them so awesome.

Tardigrades might make a great science fair project. They are easy to find outside and are reported to love to live in moss. Get some moss wet and start scanning some of the water drops on your microscope slide. Notice what happens when the water bears dry out. What happens if you then add water? After doing some more research, test some of the claims made about the extreme survivability of tardigrades. Design an experiment that tests water bears under extreme conditions.

Here’s an *awesome* clip from “Wonders of the Solar System” presented by Professor Brian Cox:

(c)2008 Big Idea Entertainment[/caption]

Many of us experience a great sense of peace and comfort against the terrors of life in our religious beliefs. However, when it comes to the greatest problems facing humanity we cannot allow ourselves the luxury to merely fret, wish, pray, or perform rituals as a way of warding off our biggest problems. We need to work on them.

The only way to overcome the big problems is through advancing our knowledge. At this time, the best way we know of to increase our knowledge is through the practice of science.

The more people and groups of people contributing toward solving the big, overwhelming problems the better. It could take many lifetimes before we can defend ourselves against the greatest dangers. In the meantime, though, a bounty of spin-off innovations and discoveries that improve our understanding of the universe, our quality of life, and security are sure to result from pursuing such goals. There is no doubt that this increase in knowledge will uncover as yet unknown threats and problems. Over time, though, we’ll get better at figuring things out and new problems will not threaten but inspire us with the possibilities of new and wonderous frontiers.

Chibithulu says, “To the scientist there is the joy in pursuing truth which nearly counteracts the depressing revelations of truth.”

*Personally, I could watch “Wonders of the Solar System” and “Wonders of the Universe” all day.**

**Sometimes I do.

***Dr. David Eagleman and many others are studying what makes us a threat to each other and possible ways to change our behavior

Polished sphere of amber with a beetle inclusion. (source)

Amber is fossilized tree resin from prehistoric conifer trees. The slow and sticky resin oozed out of a tree when it suffered damage and protected it like a gooey bandage. Eventually this resin would harden and shed off the tree where it would collect as part of the debris and sediment of the ancient forest floor. Over eons of time the resin matured chemically and fossilized into the hard plastic-like material that we know today as amber.

Fossilized tree resin from hundreds of millions of years ago is exciting, yes, but it’s what has been found in amber that is so much more riveting. Trapped within these organic stones you can often glimpse perfectly preserved organisms from the prehistoric past. Some of these unlucky deep time travelers include insects, spiders and their webs, seeds, pine needles, flowers, frogs, and even a lizard. These ensnared creatures and plant matter–known as inclusions–have been dated up to about 150 million years ago. Most of these organisms are now extinct but can be studied and classified by comparing them with current known species or known fossils.

Rock fossil of a feathered dinosaur (source)

Many of the most intriguing amber fossils are found in Canada and include a few types of feathers and protofeathers. Scientists collected and studied 11 samples of amber containing feathers and found that they were seeing a range of plumage that showed a development from primitive protofeathers to more complex feathers like those found on modern birds. They found that  some of these feathers are similar to the ones seen in rock fossil impressions of feathered dinosaurs. The more advanced feathers may have come from early birds. If you like reading about dinosaurs, amber, or prehistoric life, you will enjoy reading the original scientific paper by the scientists who are studying these fossil feathers in amber.

Possible dinosaur protofeathers.  (source)

Above are just two stages of the known stages of feather evolution. On the left are protofeathers which are very primitive and look like very fine hairs or filaments. Researchers have nicknamed these simple protofeathers “dinofuzz”. They are even studying the pigments–color-producing particles–on these feathers. Those pigments from feathers have been found in rock fossils as well, as seen in this video from researchers at Yale University.

If you have ever seen or heard about the movie or book “Jurassic Park” you may have heard that it might be possible to take DNA from an organism that has been preserved in amber. Unfortunately, at this time, that seems unlikely. DNA breaks apart quickly once an organism dies. However, amber is a fantastic preservative and if we are going to find ancient DNA somewhere it is most likely to come from just such an ideal source. Some scientists have had promising results in extracting bits of DNA from amber; however, it is a difficult and tricky process and other scientists have had trouble getting the same results. It could be possible to get a snippet or two of DNA but the DNA of a whole organism from many millions of years ago might be impossible at least for the foreseeable future.

Amanda Palmer picture from her Kickstarter page for her new album.

Rockstar/artist Amanda Palmer, well known for her vocals, piano, keyboard and ukelele performances and recordings, explored some experimental media arts with the help of MIT’s Media Lab on Memorial Day 2012. The jam session was webcast on Amanda Palmer’s Party on the Internet site and the whole event is archived at UStream here. The event is split over a few different video files. (There will be ads.)

This event was a video uzi of rapid-fire awesome. I’ve included some links and references for any of you who want more information on these innovative media projects or Amanda Palmer’s work. Amanda Palmer and MIT Media Lab will also have more and better links to the information up soon.

Joi Ito, welcomed Amanda Palmer and her viewers and gave us a brief description about what kind of people and projects you will find at Media Lab.

“The Media Lab was founded by, as kind of, the misfits of MIT, the people who couldn’t fit in at other places, and it still is, kind of, the ultimate place where all of the misfits end up, including myself. The criteria for faculty and students is–if you can do what you want to do anywhere else, don’t come to the Media Lab. You should only come to the Media Lab if you can’t fit in anywhere else and it’s the only place you can do it.

The criteria for the success of any project is: Uniqueness, Impact, & Magic. If it doesn’t have all three, it doesn’t work at the Media Lab.”

With that said, Dazza the Media Lab Emcee and Amanda Palmer the Rockstar jumped right in to get their hands dirty on some magic by inviting graduate students to demonstrate their projects.

Daniel Novy from the object-based media department started things off by showing off a project called Pillow Talk. This is for people who want to record their dreams. He claims the device was inspired by Harvard medical study that found that “upon waking, if you move your position, you will forget your dream or be more likely to forget your dream.” So instead of reaching for a journal and pen and forgetting your dream, you simply squeeze the pillow and talk into it while it records. The recording of your dream is then transmitted to a mason jar full of what appear to be LED “fireflies” where it waits for you to retrieve it.

Remember the Tupac ‘hologram’ sensation at Coachella 2012? Be amazed…be very amazed. Dan Novy works on the technology responsible for that.  He says it’s an updated version the Pepper’s Ghost magic show illusion and not actually a hologram.

There is a brief description of both PillowTalk and Holographic TV projects here.

The next Media Lab magician was Mark from the Responsive Environments group. He brought an array of tiny musical toys.

Amanda Palmer said she wants to take him on tour.

The first toys were lightweight/low power sensors that detect vibration. Mark explained that if these were worn by dancers they would create a feedback loop in combination with the music. The dancers would help create the music as they moved. They could also be worn by members of the audience for fun audience participation possibilities. They make a noise that sounds like crickets chirping.

Mark then held up a tiny microphone that plugs into the headphone jack on your iPhone. He said they’d be great for recording Amanda Palmer concerts with good sound quality. He became tired of listening to bad audio on YouTube so he invented this microphone.

You will want one of these because Amanda Palmer gladly permits bootleg recordings of her live shows with good sound quality.

Amanda then tried out a prototype musical device, Mixtape Alpha, that Mark brought that looked a lot like an old-fashioned cassette tape. Mixtape Alpha made a variety of synthy tones. It looked compact, versatile, and loaded with features. Amanda Palmer compared it to the Stylophone that she has used on tour.

Rob Morris now talked to us about his project Know Your Exit , an audio project crowdsourced from all over the world as seen on his web site. If you visit the site you can watch the patterns of crowdsourced musical data display on a graphic of the Earth. When you are done exclaiming, “Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small was singing!” (like I did), watch the nifty tweets containing search strings from the song lyrics.

Eric Rosenbaum , supergenius, of the Lifelong Kindergarten group (a.k.a. makers of Scratch) was up next to delight and astound us with MaKey MaKey . With the MaKey MaKey board you can turn any everyday objects into a keyboard or mouse input device by just little alligator clips. He took ordinary bananas and limes and turned them into a banana piano and drums. Then, Amanda Palmer and her friend, Casey, improvised with musical fruit and finally themselves.

Me likey likey.

Eric Rosenbaum is also the inventor of this lovely iPad app, MelodyMorph.

Later in the web cast Amanda Palmer debuted some new music and they took questions from Twitter. So check it out at her archive on UStream.

Amanda Palmer mentioned that she is looking for ways to work with Media Lab in the future. We will all benefit if they figure out a way to collaborate with these and future promising and fun new media devices. Heaps of gratitude to Amanda Palmer for webcasting her jam session at MIT Media Lab and giving us a peek into what’s coming in the future of music and more.

Have you ever played with a gyroscope? They’re pretty fascinating little gadgets. Gyroscopes can do things that we don’t see in any other objects. Here’s a video showing some kids doing tricks with their gyroscope. See if you can spot what it is that seems so strange about gyroscopes.

Rubik’s Cube


Back in 1981, the big toy of the year was the Rubik’s cube. We –the kids of olden times of yore– went bananas over this thing. We fiddled with them constantly  and everywhere to the dismay of our parents, teachers, and that poor little old lady we accidentally knocked over because we weren’t paying attention to where we were going on the sidewalk. (Sorry again, Mrs. Theibault.)

As you can see from the picture above it was a simple cube made up  of what appeared to be 3x3x3 equal cubes with one cube always hidden in the middle. The exterior surfaces of each of the cubes had colored stickers on them. When the cube was fresh out of the box all of the squares on each side of the whole cube matched with different colors on each facet. The three layers of the cube could be turned independently in all directions. Within a few turns and flips of the cube you were able to mix up the blocks of colors until you had shuffled the colors randomly around the cube. Then it was time to solve the puzzle by twisting the cube until all of the colors matched on all sides.

If you haven’t played with a Rubik’s Cube before, give it a try. Beware! It can be a little addicting. Puzzle it over for a few weeks. Remember that if this toy was actually a 3x3x3 cube of cubes there is another imaginary cube in the center that you can’t see and imagine how that is spinning around in there too.

If you are lucky, one of the pieces will fall off and you will get a glimpse of how the mechanism inside makes it work. You’ll probably want to deconstruct and reconstruct the whole thing. If so, take a look at these amazing mods:


Some people can solve the Rubik’s Cube without cheating. I never solved the Rubik’s Cube analytically. I solved it sort-of-by-accident two or three times. At best, I developed a sense that you had to get one layer solved to improve your chances.

If you have struggled with your Rubik’s Cube for a few weeks and it’s starting to pop its parts, I encourage you to cheat and watch one of the solution videos on YouTube. Why should you cheat? Because knowing how to solve it, helps you understand how to think and plan in 3-D.

Check out RuBot. It was programmed to solve the Rubik’s Cube:

(There is newer version of RuBot with a face and cheesy robot noises, but it creeps me out.)

If you enjoy the original 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube, you will love Jaap’s Puzzle Page. It is a huge site devoted these kinds of spatial puzzle games that will continue to challenge you.

Now, I will blow your mind. A square is a 2-dimensional shape. A cube is a 3-dimensional shape. Imagine, if you can, a cube in four dimensions. This is what is known as a hypercube. Here is a pathetically inadequate two-dimensional animation that gives the impression of what a hypercube is sort of like, but not really:

We have a hard time imagining hypercubes because our brains evolved to live and survive in three dimensions. Fortunately, computers don’t trip over their own brains and can compute geometries in other dimensions for us.

Here is a YouTube video uploaded by drag0nfur of what the programmer calls “A 3D depiction of a 4D rubiks cube being solved by a computer.”

Did you catch the text at the end that said “There are actually 8 3x3x3 cubes, one is hidden in a non-visible dimension. Please don’t ask me why it’s hidden, brains will splode if you do.”

My brain already popped its parts at the mere thought of a Rubik’s Hypercube, but thanks for the warning.

08 May 2001 --- Exploding head --- Image by © John Lund/CORBIS

Day of Doctorow

Cory Doctorow


On February 9, 2012 Northern Illinois University’s STEM Outreach program hosted an exciting STEMfest for high school students themed around the book Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

First, here is a brief review of the book to set the theme.

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is a young adult science fiction book that follows the exploits of an ingenious teen hacker named Marcus. The story opens with the shock of a horrendous terrorist attack in San Francisco. Marcus and his innocent group of friends are secretly rounded up and detained at a paramilitary gulag by the Department of Homeland Security. There, they are unjustly detained and inhumanely interrogated. Once he is finally released, Marcus, along with a growing network of outraged young adults, uses his creative understanding of technology and the internet to galvanize a resistance movement against the reactionary and increasingly authoritarian control of the Department of Homeland Security.

Doctorow set his novel in a parallel time line or near future to ours and illustrates a set of possible abuses of power and invasions of privacy made possible by real life technology. It demonstrates how we have allowed ourselves to trade a lifestyle of electronic conveniences in exchange for having our movements and behaviors tracked for questionably benign reasons like marketing data or to serve over-hyped hysteria in the name of high school security. Little Brother points out that all of that otherwise benign data could easily be tapped to discredit, implicate, or even detain you.

To counteract these potential problems, you first need to make yourself aware of them. After that, it’s a good idea to develop a technical understanding of how these systems work. Cory Doctorow provides his readers with a good bibliography to pursue more information in the back of the novel. Knowledge is power to resist abuses of power.

But this is not a dystopian book. This is dystopia averted and overcome. His thrilling and creative command of technology empowers Marcus, his friends, and family. Marcus is always the master of his computers, programs, and the internet. He’s no slave to his devices or the companies that produce them. He has learned to manipulate technology in creative ways and has the mad skills to survive and be free.

It was a really fun book to read. Now I can tell you about the STEMfest!

The Day of Doctorow event at Northern Illinois University started with a variety of science and technology workshops. I asked a group of students from the Rock Valley College Upward Bound college prep program which of the workshops they liked the best. Yanely, 15, enjoyed the fiber optics presentation. Jose, 14, thought the Faraday cage workshop was awesome. Cynthia, 15, really liked the cell phone workshop.

I went to check these workshops out. From the hallway the laser workshop was dark and flashing with glints of multicolored moving light. Inside, the students were having fun fiddling with the different laser exhibits. They flashed laser pointer beams through a large water-filled cylinder to understand fiber optics. They saw how an iPod could beam music to a speaker by laser with a SpectraSound kit.  The students also manipulated beam splitters on laser mazes to see what they could get the beams to do. The working demo of a helium neon (HeNe) laser showing the internal components of the laser intrigued me. Jeremy Benson, STEM Outreach and Engagement Associate for NIU kindly explained the HeNe laser to me. In addition to doing STEM outreach events at the university, he visits different elementary and middle schools doing science talks. He designed many of the demonstrations that the students saw that day and that he takes on the road.

The next workshop was Virtual Worlds. This was a computer lab set up with 12 stations of Apple laptops and the instructor’s computing stand with a projection onto a large media screen. The teens were in the process of changing the appearance of their avatars in OpenSimulator, an open source simulation program and virtual world. OpenSim is free. You can download the program and customize and sim to your hearts’ content. Aline Click, Director of Digital Convergence Labs was the presenter for this workshop. She said that OpenSim is good for middle school and high school students.

The Video Game Design workshop was in the adjacent room. When I walked in, there were two students standing and waving their arms around in front of a large flat panel TV as if they were playing Wii. There was also a projection of the game onto a media screen at the front of the room. The teens took turns playing the game. At first glance, they looked like they were playing a chemistry game because of the periodic table style graphics with element abbreviations. These graphics were flashing on and off at the top of the screen while little scorpion guys ran around gathering up colored balls. Eric Russell, the presenter, was calling play-by-play, “She needs to get another electron. You’re missing a neutron; get it!” When the workshop ended, I asked one of the presenters some questions about what I had just witnessed. He said the kids were playing a brand new kinesthetic physics-based video game. I told them that this surprised me, and told them I saw the periodic table graphics and assumed I was seeing a chemistry game. The presenter, Jason Underwood, acknowledged that it was a kind of fuzzy area for most people and the distinction is, in this game, the users are building the components of the atoms–which is physics–and not causing reactions between atoms–which would be chemistry. The game called Picodroid uses Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Kinect interactive controller technology and is still in beta. Patty Sievert, STEM Outreach Coordinator, commissioned the game. Picodroid was entirely designed and developed by students.

I heard that the Faraday cage workshop was getting raves. I headed upstairs so I wouldn’t miss out. Unfortunately, I had missed it, and the presenters were packing up. They took pity on me and showed me what the students learned that morning. Presenter and senior physics major, Gregory Maj, pulled the Tesla coil back out of the box and plugged it in. He unwrapped a fluorescent tube and showed me how the Tesla coil could transfer a charge to the tube and light it up. Then he wrapped a piece of wire mesh around the entire length of the tube and brought the tube and mesh within range of the charge of the Tesla coil again. The tube did not light up this time. He explained that the students experimented with several materials as possible insulators around the fluorescent tube and determined that the wire mesh was the best, followed by the aluminum foil. Maj and Andrew Moser, electrical engineering major, also gave examples of Faraday cages that we use in our everyday lives like microwaves, cars, and coaxial cables.

NIU physics student, Gregory Maj, demonstrates a Faraday cage

During the workshops the presenters made a point of mentioning their summer camp programs. The array of science, technology and engineering camps NIU STEM Outreach offers is impressive. They have very sophisticated programs for middle and high school students available in programming (including PIC 10F development for iPad, iPhone and Android), video game design, and roller coaster engineering to name just a few.

STEMfest workshops focused on do-it-yourself tech like open source programs, video game programming, cell phone tech, and the ability to creatively modify commercial devices such as the iPod with a SpectraSound kit. These were all great ways to introduce students to the kind of technical ingenuity that Cory Doctorow’s lead character displays in Little Brother.

After the workshops, Cory Doctorow gave an hour-long presentation. After that. there was a panel discussion with a few professors from Northern Illinois University. It’s an eye-opening two hours. You can watch that here.